The United States cannot lead if it is hated. If Americans still aspire to remake the world as a more democratic, more prosperous place with fewer terrorists and nuclear weapons states, if we seek global cooperation on issues ranging from counter-proliferation to climate change, we must set about earning back the goodwill of nations. The tragic global hunger crisis, which has swelled the ranks of the world's most miserable, provides the U.S. with a golden opportunity to do good while rebuilding its shattered global leadership credentials. We should seize the chance to win friends and confound our enemies by showing the world that the United States is the sole superpower when it comes to generosity.
At this global influence game -- known in statecraft as "public diplomacy" -- the Bush administration has manifestly failed. That's frustrating, because despite its foreign policy shortcomings, in purely humanitarian terms this administration has done many things right. President Bush has rejected the use of food as a political weapon, thrusting aid even on the loathsome regimes in North Korea and Myanmar. He lavished funds on Africa to combat AIDS. As the dimensions of the food crisis came into focus this winter, Bush quickly announced generous donations to the World Food Program. And the U.S. remains one of the largest donors to the World Bank, whose president, a Bush appointee, has made food a priority and sharply increased aid for agricultural development.
So why is it that in most places, the United States receives little or no credit for its generosity? This is particularly worrisome in Muslim countries, where dislike not just of the U.S. government but of the American people has increased even though U.S. aid has burgeoned. This is partly because of the mixed record of foreign aid programs, which have sometimes done more harm than good. It's also partly because no amount of aid will compensate for dreadful U.S. policies, such as the continued operation of the searingly symbolic detention center in Guantanamo Bay.
But part of the credit gap is a marketing problem. In the past, most people receiving aid under the international brand names of the World Food Program and the World Bank would never identify America as their benefactor. The U.S. Agency for International Development has been working since 2004 to better "brand" American aid with a revamped version of the clasped-hands logo that was the hallmark of the Cold War-era Food for Peace program, now in its 54th year. It also has stepped up efforts to publicize its aid. In Gaza and the West Bank, for example, where the USAID spent $50 million in 2007, the agency ran a publicity campaign to draw attention to its efforts and then polled to assess the results. The percentage of Palestinians who knew the Arabic name for the agency rose from 32% to 52% in less than a year, the percentage of hard-core rejectionists who oppose accepting U.S. government assistance dropped from 47% to 43%, and the percentage who believed the agency was sincere about helping the Palestinian people rose to 67%. Such gains won't usher in Middle East peace tomorrow, but they do demonstrate that it is possible to change attitudes even among one of the world's most embittered populations in a relatively short time.
Polling by the nonprofit group Terror Free Tomorrow also indicates that direct humanitarian aid improves the perception of the United States even among Pakistani Muslims who express support for Al Qaeda. Skeptics say that the public opinion bounce from humanitarian aid is short-lived. But the data show the reverse: Nearly three years after the massive tsunami relief effort, almost 60% of Indonesians said the aid had made them favorable toward the U.S.
So why doesn't the United States promote itself more? In hostile countries, it often prefers to work through a friendly government to boost legitimacy, and where terrorism is a problem, it avoids advertising a U.S. presence for fear that personnel as well as the aid itself could become targets. Moreover, there is deep-seated resistance by some humanitarian groups to allocating U.S. aid to strategically important countries, instead of the neediest, or to taking credit for such generosity, because relief should never be politicized.
We disagree. Humanitarian aid must be given unconditionally, but at the same time, the U.S. should launch a high-profile food diplomacy initiative planned, funded and executed for the purpose of improving national security through humanitarian means. The program should particularly target Muslims in such strategically important places as South Waziristan, Gaza, Lebanon, Algeria, Jordan and Egypt. Radical Islamist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood have used charity to develop their political leverage for years, and as The Times recently reported, they have found in the food crisis an opportunity to expand their franchise. The United States should make such Islamist aid networks irrelevant by burying them in a landslide of relief for the poor.
For the next in this series of editorials -- on a "Candy Bomber" campaign for counterinsurgency -- we invite readers to help design an intelligent food diplomacy program at www.latimes.com/foodiplomacy.